New Brunswick

N.B. has let children suffer: youth advocate

New Brunswick has let many of its young people, particularly those in First Nations communities, suffer in "shocking" conditions, says the province's child and youth advocate.

New Brunswick has let many of its young people, particularly in First Nations communities, suffer in "shocking" conditions, the province's child and youth advocate says.

Bernard Richard made the comments Friday during the release of his annual report on living conditions for children in the province.

The former Liberal cabinet minister criticized the current Liberal government, suggesting its tax cutting amounts to a "race to the bottom."

The result, he said, is insufficient money to fund social programs, which hurts the people who depend on them.

"You know, I pay taxes and I'd love to pay less taxes, but it seems to me that it's a race to the bottom and it prevents us from providing the kinds of social services that Canadians deserve," Richard said.

"We pride ourselves on being somewhere in between some of the European nations and the U.S., but I always worry that we are becoming more and more Americanized and that our decisions are based on the 'almighty dollar,' as they say in the U.S. So I'm concerned about that."

First Nations suffering

Richard said he visited every First Nation community in New Brunswick for his sweeping review of the delivery of child-welfare services.

He found conditions that were "shocking," with children in several communities not having access to adequate education facilities or proper dental treatment and suffering from being put in care or custody at a high rate.

"Life for children in New Brunswick First Nations is not always pleasant and as the recent death of Hilary Bonnell reminds us, it can sometimes be short and tragic," Richard said, referring to the 16-year-old from Esgenoopetitj, whose body was discovered last week, more than two months after she vanished.

"When I … hear about sexual abuse, physical abuse, under-achieving students in school, and fetal alcohol, and crime rates that are 10 times the crime rates in non-native communities, I can't be satisfied with that. And I don't think any New Brunswicker should be and certainly no elected official should be."

Richard called on everyone to question how such conditions can exist in a country the United Nations human development index ranks as the fourth best place to live in the world, out of 174 countries.

"Applying the index to First Nations communities alone would put them at a position of 78th," said Richard. "Evidently, a huge challenge lies ahead in achieving equal opportunities for all children and youth in New Brunswick.

"But there can be no doubt that First Nations children deserve the same chance in life as the rest of us."

Refocus priorities

Richard asked everyone to continue to try to improve the lives of young New Brunswickers and provide them with the rights they've been promised by the UN.

He also called on the government to provide social workers with more "tools" to intervene in troubled families and to prevent infanticide, referring to four recent cases in the province.

The province needs to "refocus" its priorities and put children higher on its list, Richard said.

"This exercise today is about accountability and it's about transparency and that's why we want to do it," he said.

"We want to measure outcomes, not just actions and not just promises, not even just about dollars spent, but about outcomes — what difference do … government programs make in the lives of children and youth every single day?"

Change "requires resources, it requires commitment, it requires political will," Richard said. "But yes, we have to keep at it, absolutely."